Seventeen months. 24 matches. Five different kits. Sixteen defeats. Eight draws. No wins. Nineteen goals for, 50 against. Leeds United, the Football League champions, had only lost twice at home since the title was confirmed with a win at Bramall Lane in April 1992. But it took until September 1993 for them to win again away.
“It was just like winning the FA Cup,” said Gordon Strachan, when the jinx was finally broken. “I don’t think there were celebrations like this when we won the league title.”
The absurd thing about the post-title season was that Leeds were unstoppable as ever at Elland Road, third best in the new Premier League with one solitary defeat, after going unbeaten at home through 1991/92. Save one solitary away win in the FA Cup — a third round replay at second tier Charlton — and the Charity Shield at neutral Wembley, if you’re feeling generous, they travelled for seventeen months without a hope.
Everyone scratched their heads about the reasons. Tactical minds pondered the impact of the backpass rule, not so much because of mistakes, but because Leeds couldn’t put their back four on the halfway line and play offside anymore, not away, anyway. While visiting teams were still being frightened into their own halves at Elland Road, at their own homes their fans willed them into the big spaces between the defenders and John Lukic, where a simple pass back to hands was no longer a get-out.
The other option was that Leeds were just being Leeds. “If we don’t win at Southampton,” said Howard Wilkinson, “we might try what Don Revie did, by getting someone in to exorcise the evil spirits.” He had tried everything else, changing routines, hotels, travel arrangements, training, anything he could think of to lift Leeds out of their malaise.
The solution ended up being quite simple. Southampton were without six first team players, becoming seven when commanding centre-back Ken Monkou was persuaded away to hospital fifteen minutes after banging his head against Brian Deane’s. The Saints’ talisman, Matt Le Tissier, was not in the mood, staying away from United’s combative midfield save for one disgraceful foul on Tony Dorigo. Ian Branfoot’s team had lost five of their opening six matches. If Leeds couldn’t win here, they couldn’t win anywhere.
But even without the opposition’s help, there was a fresher look to Leeds’ 4-4-2 in their blue and gold striped shirts. Although one journalist was a touch too kind calling Mark Beeney a ‘teenager’, the 25-year-old ‘keeper had taken over after one mistake too many by Lukic, and while Dorigo was classy as always at left-back, everybody was new to his right, Jon Newsome, David Wetherall and Gary Kelly, 21 years young on average. Gordon Strachan was fully fit and sick of losing, alongside Gary Speed, Gary McAllister and David Batty, and Strachan fed Batty to create the opening goal five minutes after half-time, a cross expertly glanced in at the front post by the head of record signing Deane, a new strike partner for Rod Wallace to play with.
“That was a great goal,” said Wilkinson. “A Lineker-type strike from an old-fashioned centre-forward.” It was Deane’s second for his hometown club, and he celebrated by walking slowly towards the Leeds fans behind the goal, assessing their reaction, before Speed, Wallace and McAllister dragged him into their arms.
The second goal was a long time coming, but that made the moment sweeter. Strachan chased and harried, refusing to let the ball roll out for a goal kick, beating two and squaring for Speed to hammer into the bottom corner. There was one minute left, and no doubt now Leeds had their away win, so even though Speed didn’t jump in with the fans behind the goal, they jumped onto the pitch to be with him.
‘Near hysterical’ said one report, and maybe beating some injury-hit losers 2-0 in September wasn’t the same as winning a league or a cup. While Leeds celebrated, Southampton’s fans were moving from chanting behind the dugouts to protesting in the car park, against their boss Branfoot. “Those people chanting were just a bunch of kids,” he said, while Wilkinson wryly observed, “There were two ten-year-olds trying to pick the team for him at the end.” Things were not going well at The Dell.
But sometimes, for fans, just winning one game is enough, and after seventeen months and thousands of miles of travelling, it was enough for the Leeds fans on the south coast.
Strachan felt that. “In terms of satisfaction this was one of the best wins of my career,” he said. “Now we have broken this barrier there is no reason why we cannot start to become a power again.” ⬢